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Diagnosis: symptoms

Like the rest of your body, your brain changes with age. Starting in your twenties, your brain begins to lose cells and produces fewer of the chemicals needed to make it work. Over time, these changes affect the way information is stored and retrieved.

Is it Alzheimer's?

Lapses of memory have many causes besides Alzheimer’s. Stress, boredom and depression can all cause memory problems and are common among seniors. Retirement, moving to a new place, the loss of a friend or relative and other major life changes can also take an emotional toll.

There is a big difference between forgetting where you parked your car and forgetting what your car looks like, forgetting where you put your eyeglasses and forgetting that you have eyeglasses. These warning signs are helpful indicators for understanding the differences.

10 Warning Signs (Developed by The Alzheimer's Association)

Memory loss

Normal: Forgetting your ATM number or where you parked.
Not Normal: Forgetting what an ATM card is or what kind of car you own.

This is one of the most common early signs. Someone with Alzheimer’s will progressively forget more information. Alzheimer’s attacks the brain’s hippocampus first, so short-term memory is usually the first to fail. In the late stage of Alzheimer’s, new memories become impossible for the brain to make and store.

Difficulty performing familiar tasks

Normal: Forgetting what you were about to say.
Not normal: Forgetting how to do an everyday task, like writing a check.

People with Alzheimer’s may find it difficult or impossible to do things that were once commonplace, such as writing checks or cooking a familiar recipe. These tasks become progressively more difficult over time.

Problems with language

Normal: Occasionally grasping for a word while sharing a story.
Not normal: Frequently forgetting everyday words or terms.

People with Alzheimer’s often have trouble finding the correct word to use and will substitute descriptors for common, well-known terms. The temporal lobe plays a key role in memory, language and high-level sensory processing, like understanding speech. Early in the disease, problems in the temporal lobe start to cause aphasia—the inability to remember or recall words.

Disorientation to time and place

Normal: Forgetting which day of the week you had a dental appointment.
Not normal: Getting lost in your own neighborhood.

Disorientation—not knowing where you are or what time it is—happens when the parietal lobe starts to deterioriate. This common symptom can be very worrisome to the individual and to family members.

Poor or decreased judgment

Normal: Making a poor decision once in a while.
Not normal: Dressing inappropriately or placing an inappropriate amount of trust with an unknown person.

People with Alzheimer’s experience changes in the frontal lobe of their brains—the part of the brain that helps us carry out purposeful behaviors and complex reasoning. People with Alzheimer’s may exhibit behaviors that are completely out of character, and judgment may become cloudy.

Problems with abstract thinking

Normal: Having a checkbook that is occasionally off balance.
Not normal: Completely forgetting how to perform mental tasks, like calculations or estimations.

The brain of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s has fewer nerve cells and synapses. Over time, this makes complex mental tasks more difficult.  When Alzheimer's strikes, victims often lose the ability to plan and initiate complicated activities.

Misplacing things

Normal: Misplacing or losing your keys or wallet.
Not normal: Putting the ice cube tray in the oven instead of the freezer.

Even in its earliest stages—long before diagnoses can be made—plaques and tangles can be found in the brain of a person with Alzheimer's. Researchers believe that the components of these plaques and tangles disturb the chemical and electrical signals in the brain, resulting in loss of memory. This may cause people with Alzheimer's to misplace things or put them in strange places. For example, an opened gallon of milk may be put back into a pantry, instead of the refrigerator. Or, canned goods may be placed in the freezer, instead of the pantry.

Changes in mood or behavior

Normal: Feeling moody or blue periodically.
Not normal: Severe mood swings, not caused by an underlying diagnosis of depression or another illness.

Once Alzheimer’s disrupts the brain’s emotional center, a person may display surprising, and out-of-character behaviors such as paranoia, emotional outbursts and inappropriate sexual advances. A person with a typically calm personality may suddenly turn hostile and anxious due to shifts in the amygdala, which regulates basic emotions such as fear and anger.

Changes in personality

Normal: Becoming more or less talkative as you age.
Not normal: Extreme confusion, suspicion, fear or dependency.

People with Alzheimer’s may experience severe personality and mood swings. They may also do things that are completely out of the ordinary or that seem insensitive to the feelings of others. It is important to remember that these changes are beyond the person’s control, as the disease attacks and changes the person’s brain.

Loss of initiative

Normal: Wanting to rest and avoid social appointments when tired.
Not normal: Dozing in front of a television for hours on end, sleeping more than usual and not showing any interest in things that once brought joy.

With this warning sign, it’s important to rule out other potential medical conditions, like depression. For anyone concerned with memory loss or impaired thinking, a depression screening is a must. In early stages of Alzheimer’s, people may sense that something is not quite right and may feel depressed and down. An early intervention and accurate diagnosis can help the person feel more control and give them a sense of direction with their care.



Brain Stem Occipital Parietal Temporal Lobe Frontal Lobe Amygdala Hippocampus